Contributed from New South Wales
Campaigners have been pushing for an independent federal anti-corruption body and polls suggest most Australians are in favour. In their view, corruption is real and getting worse, and this is what is driving the demand that our politicians take action to curb it.
The Morrison government has been loath to act. But the strength of public opinion, and pressure in the parliament from the opposition parties and crossbench, have forced a move.
Australian Attorney General Christian Porter has announced that an anti-corruption body will be established. It is to be called the Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
Photo by Mick Tsikas/AAP: Attorney General Christian Porter
But it is a feint. This is a toothless tiger. Any investigation will be held behind closed doors, making it likely that any inquiry would lack proper investigation, especially when corruption in politics, government departments and agencies is what is in question.
Whistleblowers will not just be ignored. They may face the possibility of being charged with the intention to cause “detriment to another person,” and could face up to 12 months’ imprisonment.
The Commission will lack proper powers to police corruption and impose penalties.
Furthermore, the Porter plan does not include a mandate for corruption prevention. Nor does it allow independent checking on the performance of the Commission.
Campaigners have attacked the narrow definition of corruption. Only cases that involve clear criminal behaviour are covered. Hiding a conflict of interest or other forms of what might also be considered corrupt acts are excluded and will not be investigated. On top of this, allegations of corruption already occurred will not be heard. Only future corruption will be allowed.
The new body will not even be permitted to consider tips provided by the public, and only cases referred by the Attorney General and other government agencies will be considered.
Topping all this is that the Attorney General will be given the power to declare that information relating to a case, shall not be allowed to be passed onto the Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
No wonder former Victorian supreme court judge Stephen Charles suggested that the Porter plan is to “protect parliamentarians and senior public servants from investigation”.
The Centre for Public Integrity director, Geoffrey Watson, a leading barrister, has described it as a “sham”.
It all goes to show that the public perceptions of corrupt politicians and a corrupted political system are right on the mark. Putting up a sham body to pretend the problem is being dealt with, smells very much like the government knows it has a lot to hide.
Australia must not let them get away with this sham.